Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pidan at Reyum

As I missed the Pidan exhibition opening earlier this week at the Reyum Gallery , whilst I was in the area this morning I paid a visit with Sophoin to find out a bit more about pidan, something which I was totally unaware of until recently. It's actually a piece of cloth that is traditionally hung above statues of the Buddha, so for years I've been visiting pagodas around the country and was oblivious to an artform in front of me, but which I didn't even notice! It can be made from different types of cloth of different colours, sizes and design but the best pidan is made from silk and is beautifully patterned, much of it coming from the old hol pidan silk-weavers of Takeo. The pidan exhibition at Reyum has some beautifully patterned pieces on show, information on how it is produced and a book has been published by Reyum and the Japanese-led Pidan Project Team to document this vanishing art.
Sophoin spots her favourite piece of pidan
The walls of Reyum are lined with examples of multi-coloured pidan
This busy scene has a variety of colourful characters included in its story
This is easy to spot, its Hanuman with Angkor also represented
This is part of the story of Prince Vessantara from the life story of Buddha
Elephants and temples feature heavily on this example of the pidan artform

32 Sothearos Boulevard

The frontage of 32 Sothearos Boulevard
32 Sothearos Boulevard, known this week as the Bodega, is the well-worn neo-classical French colonial style building opposite the National Museum that has been vacant for a while now but which is slated for development in the near future by FCC. As part of the current Phnom Penh photography exhibition, it's been temporarily taken-over by the Melon Rouge Photo Agency and is hosting a collection of photography, video and slideshow presentations until 7 December. I paid a flying visit this morning to snap anything of interest I could see, though I must say I wasn't blown away by the photos on display. The building itself dates from 1930 and is pretty knackered and needs some loving care and attention to breathe some life back into it. Nevertheless, it was nice to have the opportunity to nose around. Link: Mr Bodega
Neo-classical wall mountings are on the ground and 1st floors
Colourful floor tiles with dizzying patterns in need of a good clean
This lady carrying a pitcher on her head is under threat from vegetation
More of those patterned floor tiles on the 1st floor
This elegant classical beauty can be found on the ground floor
Ah, even more of those patterned tiles
With flowing hair and clothes, this beauty belongs to a bygone era
These floor tiles are certainly in need of some restoration
One of the photo exhibits under a classic arch on the 1st floor
A reminder of what is not allowed inside
This neo-classical doorway also has chinese influences
The National Museum is to be seen from the 1st floor balcony at the Bodega

Silence from the minnows

The Suzuki Cup's minnows - Cambodia
I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record but I still can't understand why the press here in Cambodia, well the English-language press as I don't read Khmer, has remained completely silent about the upcoming AFF 2008 Suzuki Cup tournament in which Cambodia, the competition's underdogs, minnows, no-hopers, call them what you will, will pit themselves against the best countries in the region. It's Cambodia's world cup if you like and yet the column inches devoted to their build-up, preparation and chances of success has been precisely zero, zilch, nada, nowt. Piss poor is how I see it. I can go online and find pages of reports from the other countries but for Cambodia its been a barren build-up to their biggest competition for years. Some of the other countries like Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia have had their teams in training camps for the last two months and have played up to ten friendlies and a warm-up tournament to get to the peak of match fitness. Cambodia's preparation has been considerably less, with the national Premier League only finishing its final games last weekend, leaving the national coach Prak Sovannara with just two weeks to prepare his squad for the competition. Obviously that's not nearly enough time to get them in the right shape physically or mentally, but its as good as he's going to get so they'll have to deal with it as best they can. The squad are preparing themselves at the National Football Centre 17kms outside of the capital, training each morning and evening before they fly to Jakarta three days before their first game. Their last serious match together was the 2-1 success over Brunei in the final game of the qualifying tournament in Phnom Penh on 25 October when Khim Borey's goal fifteen minutes from time sent them through as runners-up to Laos. In the qualifiers, they also beat Laos 3-2, drew 2-2 with Timor Leste and lost 3-2 against the Philippines.

The competition has been spilt into two groups. Cambodia are in Group A where the games will be played in Jakarta and they will kick-off the tournament against the current holders and favourites Singapore next Friday (5th Dec). Singapore themselves, coached by Serb Raddy Avramovic, have just finished their domestic S-League championships so are in the same boat as Cambodia, but their squad is far more experienced in international competition and are tipped to win the Suzuki Cup for a third consecutive time. Cambodia will meet co-hosts Indonesia in their second game on the 7th, and then finish their group matches against Myanmar on the 9th. In the Thailand-hosted Group B, which has been switched to Phuket as the airport problems in Bangkok escalate, the host country managed by Brit Peter Reid will face Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia. The semi-finals will be played from 16-21 December and the two-legged final on 24 and 28 December. In all honesty Cambodia are not expected to progress or even get a point from their group matches. Their experience at this level of competition is virtually non-existent and with their obvious weaknesses in defence, and with so little time to put it right, I'm hopeful the coach will get his team playing an all-out offensive gameplan. The matches will be televised, so even if the English-language newspapers remain silent, you should be able to watch the games on tv here in Asia. Come on Cambodia!

Final engagement

Two authors meet - the real one is on the left
A well-attended book-signing and talk by Sichan Siv at Monument Books last night was the final public engagement of the former Ambassador's brief visit to Cambodia with his wife Martha. It went so well that Monument sold its complete stock of his book, Golden Bones. In his talk, before he invited questions from the audience, Sichan mentioned the importance of the 4 F's - faith, friends, family and freedom - and of course the message that underlines everything else in his book, and his life, to never give up hope. He invited feedback from everyone who'll read his book and hopes it will be published in the Khmer language sometime soon; its currently being translated into Chinese.
It's a book-signing - what else did you expect!
Sichan Siv discusses a few select passages from his inspiring memoir, Golden Bones

Statesman Son Soubert

Meeting Son Soubert for the first time with an intro from Martha Pattillo Siv. Photo courtesy Jim Mizerski
I mentioned yesterday that I was fortunate enough to meet His Excellency Son Soubert a couple of times and thanks to photographer Jim Mizerski, here's the record of our first meeting at the National Library for the donation of his memoir Golden Bones, by former US Ambassador Sichan Siv. Jim, a resident of Long Beach, California and a retired American naval officer, has often been in Cambodia following his passion for photography since 2003 and has held exhibitions of his work here, and was kind enough to let me post a couple of his photos. Introductions were made by Martha, Sichan's wife before Sichan joined the conversation. HE Son Soubert is a member of Cambodia's Constitutional Council and a former deputy speaker of the National Assembly. He originally trained as an archaeologist in France, became a professor in the Faculty of Archaeology of the Royal University of Fine Arts and has held many positions in government. During 1993-98, he served as second vice-president of the National Assembly and in March 1998, he became president of the Son Sann Party, a party founded by his father, who served as Prime Minister in the late-60s and who formed the Khmer People's National Liberation Front in 1979, one-third of a three-part coalition movement that opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in the '80s.
In deep discussion with Sichan Siv (left) and Son Soubert (right). Photo courtesy Jim Mizerski

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The legendary Ieng Sithul

The man on the left with the krama is the legendary Ieng Sithul. Forget the other guy.
I mentioned last night that the extraordinary Cambodian performer Ieng Sithul was involved in the new opera Where Elephants Weep and realized you may not have heard of this particular man, even though he's instantly recognizable in his homeland. Ieng Sithul is a master of many Khmer traditional instruments and a classical and traditional singer of great repute. He is from a musical family and sang professionally as a child before the Khmer Rouge years. Afterwards, he studied instruments under his uncle, Meng Hun, the greatest instrumentalist of the last two decades. Sithul is now a familiar host on Cambodian television, radio (right) and stage and one of the most popular recording artists in Cambodia today. He has a deep knowledge of traditional culture and is a high-profile supporter of classical Khmer art with his involvement with Cambodian Living Arts. However for the last twelve years he has suffered from a heart ailment which has meant he has had to be very careful with his schedule. But that didn't stop this Khmer living legend from taking a group of young Cambodian folk dancers and musicians from the Tonle Bassac in Phnom Penh on a tour of the UK and Scotland in August, where they performed at the WOMAD Festival (WOMAD) in England and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning awards, rave reviews, and audience praise throughout. Now he's playing three parts no less in the headline-grabbing opera at the Chenla Theatre and gathering a new set of fans in the process. Long may he continue.

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Bruno and his maps

One of Bruno's maps of Preah Vihear province
Speaking to Bruno Bruguier over lunch yesterday whetted my appetite for further adventures into the Cambodian countryside to unearth ancient archaeological sites that Bruno and his team have already identified on their Carte Archéologique du Cambodge maps, which cover all the provinces of the country where archaeological sites can be found. It was our first chance to meet up after many emails back and forth and Bruno is a man after my own heart. But of course he's the expert and I'm the complete amateur. He began his amazing project to map and record all of Cambodia's archaeological sites, before, during and after Angkor, in 1990 and is still going. Funds have dried up to expand the database as Bruno would like, so he is open to offers for funding to continue this invaluable work. He's registered over 4,000 sites, has another 1,000 that need to be finalized before they can be added to the maps and database and he knows there are still areas like the Cardamoms and Svay Rieng that have yet to be properly explored and documented. He hasn't done it alone of course, a small team has worked with him over the years to locate the main sites and then to widen the search on the ground with the help of local villagers. The maps themselves are a collaboration between EFEO (The French Institue of Oriental Studies) for whom Bruno works, when he's not teaching Khmer history at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the Ministry of Culture & Fine Arts. The maps have been published in both French and Khmer and are for sale at the National Museum and the French Cultural Center for $3 each. A corresponding interactive website, Carte Interactive des Sites Archéologiques Khmers (CISARK) with photos and additional information can be found here and though its mostly in French, Bruno is hoping to expand the languages to include English, Khmer and Japanese. But all this takes time and money, which is always in short supply. As an additional off-shoot of the project, Bruno and his wife have written six manuscripts of the major temples and archeological sites around Cambodia, on a regional basis. The first of those manuscripts, Southern Cambodia, has been made into a book by Reyum with many photographs and maps and is scheduled to be published at the end of January next year. The text will be in French because there was no funds available to translate it into English. If you haven't already guessed Bruno and his EFEO colleagues are all from France. It was a great pleasure to meet Bruno, I loved his natural enthusiasm for his work and I'm sure we'll remain in touch as I feed him any additional information I unearth.

New acquaintances

Sichan Siv explaining his previous visits to the National Library, as a schoolboy
A day of meeting and greeting. I met HE Son Soubert this afternoon at the National Library for the first time and then again at the Opera Premiere at the Chenla Theatre in the evening. A very gracious man who has a penchant for archaeology, as does another first-time liaison with Bruno Bruguier, my lunch-time companion at Khmer Kitchen restaurant. Son Soubert has served in many positions in government in Cambodia, is very highly respected for his statesmanship, and is the son of the late Prime Minister Son Sann. For his sins, Bruno works for EFEO and teaches at the Sorbonne, and is the man behind the CISARK archaeological maps of the provinces of Cambodia - a fantastic resource for any temple-hunter like myself. We talked maps (he's looking for more finance to extend the mapping project), temples and about his forthcoming book on ancient temples in southern Cambodia, due out at the end of January. The only problem - it's to be published only in French, by Reyum.
The reason for visiting the National Library was to witness the donation of a copy of his inspiring memoir, Golden Bones to the head librarian at the Bibliotheque, Khlot Vibolla by former Ambassador Sichan Siv, in the city for a couple of days before heading back out to the United States. Accompanied by his wife Martha and a host of high-ranking government officials, Sichan presented the book to the library recalling his days spent in its hallowed halls and has a dedication in his book, taken from the library walls. I was shown around the library with Martha by Khlot, who took great pride in her collections and it was great to see so many youngsters in the reading room taking advantage of the library's extensive bookshelves, which were decimated by the Khmer Rouge and the halls used as a pigsty. As soon as this event finished I jumped on a moto and headed over to the Chenla Theatre for my night rubbing shoulders with the stars!
Sichan Siv and his wife Martha are accompanied by Khlot Vibolla (green) and Thary Ung (red)
A dedication on the wall of the Library can be found at the front of the Golden Bones memoir: 'Force ties for a time. Ideas bind forever'
Sichan Siv & Martha with some of the government officials who joined the book donation ceremony
On the steps of the Bibliotheque with Son Soubert on the far left and members of the Library staff

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Elephants are celebrating

The legendary Ieng Sithul and a freeloader who gatecrashed the premiere - oh that's me then!
I must say I really enjoyed the show tonight. My thanks to Anthony for the ticket and to Marie, his wife and my companion for the evening. Where Elephants Weep was my first rock-opera and I hope it won't be my last. If you suspend belief for the duration of the performance, the musical-cum-opera is a love story of course, between Sam and Bopha set in Cambodia in the mid-90s, mixing traditional elements of Cambodian music with a rock element which worked well and though it's heavily influenced by the involvement of western actors and production team, it captures its fair share of the conflict between tradition and modernity in Cambodia today. I'm the least qualified to give an in-depth critique of the show, suffice to say it was a professional performance from all concerned and one which will show another dimension to the performing arts for the local audiences next week. The show attracted the great and the good from senior government ministers to actors, actresses such as Dy Savet, singers including Preap Savath, statesmen like Son Soubert and Sichan Siv, the list was endless. On stage I was so pleased to see the likes of master musician and singer Ieng Sithul, the beautiful classical ballet star Sam Sathya and Dang Kosal as one of the bodyguards. Kosal was working at Meta House until he joined the production three months ago and its a wonderful opportunity for the young man to make his mark. The tickets for tonight's VIP world premiere topped $250 including a champagne and cocktail reception, so once again thanks to Anthony for the freebie.
The two leads - Sam (Michael K Lee) and Bopha (Diane Veronica Phelan)
Members of cast and crew celebrate their success
Ex-Meta House pal & bodyguard Dang Kosal and his PR photo above in the cap
Executive producer John Burt (front) and members of cast, crew and friends enjoying the limelight. Yes, that's BosbaPANH sat on the floor.

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Where Andy weeps

A street ad for When Elephants Weep on Monivong Boulevard
I'm miffed again. This time it's with the folks at the Khmer Rock opera Where Elephants Weep that has garnered so much attention in recent weeks and where the publicity juggernaught has been in overdrive, promoting the event which kicks off tonight with its VIP Premiere at the Chenla Theatre. I booked my tickets for one of the cheaper shows on Saturday 6th when the WEW cast did a brief preview at Meta House over a week ago, and I called them today to arrange a time to pick up the tickets. Lo and behold, all tickets have been sold out for all the shows and my booking has been ignored, even though I gave it to one of the ticket organisers! I am not a happy chappy as you might imagine. I have given this opera a lot of coverage on my blog, I am even a judge in a competition with Expat Advisory to give away free tickets, yet I find myself cut adrift without a ticket of my own. There's been mention of another show being put on, but even so, I ordered my tickets in good faith and to-date, have been badly let down. It's all well and good promoting an event and getting it out there in front of everyone but that needs to be backed up with a robust ticket and booking operation in the background, or else it falls flat on its face. I am awaiting a call from WEW to see whether they have managed to wrangle me a ticket afterall. It also makes me wonder whether I'm an isolated case or whether there's a rump of unhappy opera enthusiasts gnashing their teeth like I am. More later.
Update (12 noon): I'm not crying as much now. Just had call from WEW and they can get me some cheap tickets for Saturday 6th. Not the seats I booked and I'll be with the riff-raff (only kiddin') but at least I should get to see the opera afterall. Well done WEW for coming through with a compromise after you made the booking error, and therefore the compromise is all mine! But as my mum used to say, beggars can't be choosers. She was full of useless quotes like that. Her all-time favourite was 'never trouble trouble, til trouble troubles you' - whatever that means. She is long departed from this planet, but not forgotten, her quotes live on.
Further update (2pm): I've stopped crying and am now smiling. Someone just called and offered me a ticket for tonight's VIP Premiere, free of charge, as long as I accompany their wife. I agreed without hesitation. A free show, lovely female company and I get to see it on opening night. The day could not have turned out better. I should moan more often!

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Just another week

With tourist numbers to Cambodia already falling, the crisis at Bangkok's two airports is helping no-one, least of all Thailand. They seem hell-bent on becoming Enemy No 1, and it's succeeding. They've also accused Cambodia of laying landmines at Preah Vihear. What next? Are Cambodia putting arsenic in the Mekong River - whoops, that was a story this week too. In other news, Siem Reap Airways have been grounded; foreigners can marry Khmers again; rumours abound that Angelina Jolie and Brad will be here for the opening night of Where Elephants Weep; Global Witness and the monkey rights groups attack the government again; Somaly Mam gets 1 million Euros from Germany; Placebo will play Angkor Wat; the new OK Condom gets its public airing on Monday; and Cambodian monks get some more bad press with the rape of a British woman in Battambang. Oh, there are two photography exhibitions in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh but very little, if any, local involvement amongst the exhibitors, hence I haven't bothered to mention them. As you can see, it's just another week in Cambodia.
A monk in Battambang wearing my brother Tim's sunglasses

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Students get message of hope

Sichan Siv takes time out after his talk to meet members of the student audience
Nearly 500 students, monks and teachers at Pannasastra University listened intently to a forty-minute talk from Sichan Siv tonight at the University's Srey Dim Conference Hall on Norodom Boulevard on his life story and the main theme running through his memoir Golden Bones to 'never give up hope.' His is a remarkable story of a Cambodian-born immigrant in the United States to rise to such a prominent level in government and diplomatic circles and to have served two US Presidents with distinction. He answered questions from the assembly before taking time out to chat to individual students, pose for photos and autographs. As an ambassador-in-residence for Troy University in Alabama, Sichan is hopeful of establishing a partnership with Pannasastra, where he previously spoke to students and faculty members more than two years ago. Following the event, I was able to join a very enjoyable dinner party at Malis restaurant in Sichan's honour, hosted by Minister of Education, Youth & Sports, Dr Kol Pheng, who is the founder of Pannasastra. Sichan Siv is due to present a copy of his book to the National Library tomorrow (Friday) at 4pm and on Saturday at 6pm will host a book-signing session for his Golden Bones autobiography at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard.

Letters to the editor

My letter to the editor regarding the appalling lack of national sports coverage made page 6 of the Phnom Penh Post today. They chopped it up a little bit (but they do reserve that right) but they printed it nevertheless. Bravo. They know their faults as confirmed by their chief subeditor - I hope they manage to get a sports editor/reporter soon to fill that void.

Here's the letter as printed in the PPP:
More national sport coverage, please
Dear Editor,
To say I am disappointed with the local football coverage provided by the Post is an understatement. [On Tuesday] I read a back-page article on homeless football, a full-page article no less, about five teenagers! Good luck to them, I say, but at the weekend the final matches of the professional Cambodia Premier League were played and new champions crowned with absolutely no mention at all in the Post.
There is too much coverage of international sport and almost zero coverage of national sport, especially football, which is so immensely popular in Cambodia. Very soon, the national team will take part in the AFF Suzuki Cup in Indonesia, but so far no articles about the build-up to this competition have appeared at all.
I think the Post needs to urgently review its sporting priorities to ensure a good mix of national and international stories, without an emphasis on the latter.
Andy Brouwer, Phnom Penh
Or click this link.

One more look

One of the classical dancers in reflective mode
In wrapping up the book launch event at Monument Books last night, here's a few more photos just to spread the limelight about a bit more fairly, instead of the radiant Srey Mao grabbing all the attention. The teenagers put on a great show, both with their dance and their music, and how they conducted themselves in general. They were a credit to their teacher and the NGO that looks after them. I hope they get many more similar opportunities to show off their artistic skills. Don't forget the NGO name, Angkar Sangkruos Komar Borey Bakheng from Preak Leap, just outside Phnom Penh.
This is Hanuman, the monkey king giving himself a good scratch
The dancers and the orchestra come to the end of their first performance
One of the female dancers in full regalia
The 9-member pinpeat orchestra and two of the singers at the front - all teenagers
Classic Khmer beauty and poise

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Book launch minus author

The classical dancers give their support to the new book, Cambodian Dance
It didn't seem right that a book launch could be scheduled without the appearance of the author but that's exactly what happened at Monument books in Phnom Penh this evening - and it turned out just fine. In fact Monument Books went out of their way to make up for the absence of author Denise Heywood, residing back home in London, by entertaining the good crowd with a performance of classical Cambodian dance, accompanied by a youthful pinpeat orchestra, a great spread of food and drink and an introduction to the evening by celebrated author and owner of the publishers, River Books, MR Narisa Chakrabongse. It was earlier this year that Narisa, the founder and chairwoman of Green World Foundation, had boycotted an offer to carry the Olympic torch in protest of China's actions against Tibet. She is a well-established author herself with books published on the Thai royal family and edited Denise Heywood's new book. The teenage dancers and orchestra came from the Preak Leap-based NGO Angkar Sangkruos Komar Borey Bakheng, who provide free arts training to the poor and gifted of the village of Bakheng, just outside the capital. They put on a fine show which fitted in perfectly with the theme of the evening's launch, and the title of the new book, Cambodian Dance. I must also congratulate Monument on their catering efforts too (courtesy of Java Cafe) but of course they now have to maintain these high standards they have set themselves, starting with the book-signing by Ambassador Sichan Siv and his Golden Bones book on Saturday evening.
MR Narisa Chakrabongse offers her view on the excellent new book by Denise Heywood
Three of the dancers and the pinpeat orchestra, all from Bakheng village
Some of the audience show their appreciation for the dance performance
The whole company take their bow at the end of the show
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